I was first introduced to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in college (I’m starting to see a pattern here, now that I look back on it). It was a Women Writers course. It fulfilled some diversity requirement and it fit in with my Creative Writing emphasis. What I didn’t expect was the tremendous empathetic impact it had on me. We read Herland, and I can remember myself feeling as if this magical land of women really should exist. We read Amy and Isabelle, and I found myself absolutely enthralled by the writing. I still can’t put my finger on it, exactly, except that I devoured that book in days and had to literally go back and skim through it before class to refresh my memory. Elizabeth Strout is a powerhouse writer, no doubt about it.
We also read The Bluest Eye. I’m horrible at explaining my subjective likes and dislikes, but I wanted to give this one a shot because it meant so much to me. When we hear things about reading’s value, we often center it around the idea of Empathy–namely, being able to understand the world through another person’s point of view. I don’t think any book has ever so fully embraced this idea for me as The Bluest Eye. Being a privileged white male, ideas of racism and beauty standards never really applied to me. They were a different world, this thing on the periphery that “exists” but not in the same way the threat of hunger exists.
Racism is a threat. Beauty standards are a threat. Family, the very thing that I consider so important to the fabric of my sense of self, can just as easily be a threat. The Bluest Eye didn’t teach me these things–it showed me them through the eyes of Pecola, a young girl who sees herself as “ugly” and desires blue eyes because they denote “whiteness,” and therefore beauty.
There’s a lot going on in this book. I remember the rape scene between Pecola and her father because of its brutality and its confusion. Is it possible that Cholly raped his daughter in a confused attempt to show love? Is it possible this is the only way he was taught to show love to someone of the opposite sex? The truth is that I don’t know; all I know is that our class discussions opened my eyes to different interpretations, and in this experience I saw the power of empathy: bringing together all of our collective baggage and then trying to unpack it through the plot of a beautiful book.
This book has stayed with me. I think about Pecola when I see kids singling out and teasing a kid who’s different. I think about Cholly when I read about violent men who don’t understand their aggression and can’t cope with their emotions. And I think about Toni Morrison, who brought this story into the world and let me see life through the eyes of a young black girl tortured by the desire to be seen as pretty.